Young Trustees Movement: How should philanthropy learn from young people?

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By Kate Roberts and Amelia Ireland, with thanks to Mita Desai, Callum Pethick and Charlotte Lamb. 27 June 2022

For 20 years NPC has been helping philanthropists and charities to maximise social impact in the lives of the people they serve. To mark our 20th birthday, we’ve been talking to leading figures and people doing things differently to ask: Where next for social impact? In this essay, Kate Roberts and Amelia Ireland ask: How should philanthropy learn from young people? With thanks to Mita Desai, Callum Pethick and Charlotte Lamb. Opinions are the authors’ own.

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Young people have long been seen as the beneficiaries of philanthropy. Yet young people themselves, who are so central to the missions of these organisations, tend to be missing from the decision-making table. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

Philanthropy is often seen in a positive light, modelling as the definition of charitable, and used as a buzzword to describe how people do good in the world. Yet many have come to realise that philanthropy has developed a bad reputation, and rightly so. It is built on colonial ideals and ideologies. As decolonisation and the unlearning of traditional ways of thinking come to the forefront, we need to consider how we view philanthropy. The Victorian idea of philanthropy and charity is about holding onto power, and often centres on helping the poor to make the rich feel good. We need to reframe this narrative.

It is important to think about philanthropy through a modern lens and consider what it could become. If philanthropy was more willing to truly shift power, then the resulting change could be significant. We need to go beyond the current ESG (economic, social, governance) model of charitable investment into something more radical, where philanthropy has truly shifted power to those with lived experience and who have traditionally been excluded.


Raising our voices and driving change

Young people have long been seen as the beneficiaries of philanthropy, with a myriad of charities existing to improve our lives. Yet young people themselves, who are so central to the missions of these organisations, tend to be missing from the decision-making table.

Engaging with young people and learning from young people are different things. Charities often find it much easier to solely engage, by creating channels for input and to platform young people’s voices. However, when these young people’s voices are saying that radical change is needed or bringing up challenging issues, charities need to adapt and change, not shy away. This could mean giving power away or creating a culture shift. Using what is learnt working alongside young people can be hard to do, but it is necessary to ensure meaningful change.

Charities whose missions are not exclusively around young people should also include young people’s voices. Young people want to lead and feel empowered to do so, and particularly young people with lived experience are best placed to do this, with the support of specialists. Young people need to have tangible power sharing, being brought in not just to be the face of campaigns, but to lead and drive them as well.

‘If you are genuinely getting young people involved in decisions about young people, it should lead you to do something differently.’

Charlotte Lamb, Principal for Involvement and Decision Making at NPC 

The lived experience of a diverse range of young people, used in a way that is not tokenistic, can be incredibly powerful in shaping the direction of a charity. Yet we see that not all young people are being reached. Understanding the barriers and working with others to overcome these is vital to ensure that a wide range of young voices are heard and able to shape decisions.


Looking back and looking ahead

The pandemic shone a light on many existing inequalities, several of which affected young people particularly, including racial justice, food poverty, mental health, digital inclusion, and access to green space, alongside giving rise to social and environmental justice movements led by young people. As these issues are now at the forefront of people’s minds, this may impact the issues which young people (and others) are looking to engage with and donate to. We have seen a rise in young people challenging things and campaigning over the last few years, which is likely to continue.

The charity sector showed itself to be incredibly adaptable during the pandemic, quickly shifting its services online and showcasing itself as open to change. So we now have no excuse because we know that we can change in radical ways when needed. Whatever organisations learn from young people must be listened to, and change must result from it.

Young people are coming into the world of work with a very different perspective and are used to different ways of doing things compared to generations before, which charities need to be very mindful of. The pandemic has provided young people with significant resilience and adaptability, but also a desire for stability and security. The burden of constant change can be significant, and the balance needs to be right. Young people are open to change, but also very aware of where they don’t have to.

We need to think about who is in the driving seat, the voices in youth spaces can often be the most privileged young people – particularly those who are white and middle class. Young people with lived experiences of the issues being tackled are best placed to lead the change needed. Working with grassroots youth spaces is vital, as they can often be the most effective spaces to put this into action.


Shifting the perspective

We know that young people are engaged with multiple issues, because the intersections between societal problems have become clearer and more prevalent. Charities and funders are going to have to address this more, work together and look at how to systemically address the root causes of issues. The next few years should present more opportunities for young people who are facing injustice to be supported to challenge systemic issues, with clear routes set out by organisations to support them to do so.

There is an expectation from young people that lived experience should be central in decision making. Organisations need to question who is making decisions about where funding is going. Young people care about where money comes from, where it is going, and ensuring that charities serve their purpose through funding streams. If young people don’t see that decisions are being made by people with lived experience of the issue that is being tackled, they won’t come away with much faith or trust in that organisation. Trustees are a crucial cog in this, which is why trustee boards should contain people with a range of perspectives and those with lived experience, including Young Trustees.

Charities and funders should not begin with outreach until they are modelling equity internally. Charities need to think about who they are here to serve and ensure they are represented on their board, in their staff structure and in their advisory panels and equivalent programmes. The main thing to consider is where the power lies and how lived experience can be centred within that. If you model what you preach, young people will find you and engage with you.


Speaking truth to power

Philanthropy can learn a lot from young people, but it needs to go further than just learning to actively sharing power with young people.

We all know that charities are incredibly stretched and burnt out following the pandemic, meaning that there is nuance around how power structures and resources currently sit within the charity sector and wider society. We know that justice movements happen through multiple organisations, not a single charity, therefore collaboration is key. Charities and funders need to work in partnership to address complex issues and how they overlap.

It is a massive risk for charities to work hard on engaging young people to then decide to continue with the status quo and do things how they have always been done. The consideration of how to ensure youth engagement leads to change, and ensuring you are prepared to change if young people tell you to do something needs to be done radically differently.

The power dynamics at play can often make it challenging for young people to meaningfully engage, so charities and funders need to be supportive and encouraging to hear truth spoken to power and therefore make the right changes. We have seen that when there is heavy investment into young people, but not the right support around them, it may not have the impact hoped for, leading people to question if this engagement is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do – it just needs to be done in the right way.

‘How do we ensure we aren’t limiting young people from creating change but aiding them instead?’

Callum Pethick, Youth Led Change Programme Lead at Blagrave Trust

More trust-based and transparent philanthropy could assist in rebalancing power dynamics. Transparency creates more equity and will lead to better decision making. If information can be found easily online, it can be both challenged and held accountable.


Being bolder and braver

Young people need to set the agenda about how philanthropy can support young people, they need to be listened to and change enacted from their voices. If you meaningfully engage young people and look to create change based on what is learnt alongside them, then you can’t go far wrong. Philanthropy must not be tokenistic, but should be bold and brave in shifting power.

There is a lot that philanthropy can learn from young people, but it is how this learning is enacted to create meaningful change that will be game changing and transformative. Take this opportunity to think about where the power lies within your organisation, and what you can do to shift this power towards those with lived experience of the issues you are here to tackle.

Engaging with young people and learning from young people are different things. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet


What should NPC be doing? 

NPC should be able to challenge charitable organisations to consider the role of young people in their decision making structures, and ask questions about where power truly lies, in order to be able to work collaboratively with young people and charitable organisations to shift this power balance. NPC should promote and empower the voices of young people so that these voices can drive impact and meaningfully contribute to the charity sector.


We hope you find these essays and interviews engaging and thought provoking. We’d love to hear what you think the future holds, and what you believe NPC should be focusing on. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #20yearsofNPC or through our events. As a charity ourselves we rely on the generosity of those who value our work to help us to continue to produce research and guidance to support the sector in maximising social impact. Visit the 20 years of NPC page to find out more. 

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